I read through the New York Times obituary for Julie Harris this morning in search of a reference to The Haunting, my nominee for the scariest movie of all time.
Miss Harris, who died on Saturday, made her considerable mark in the theater, but I know her best for her work in Robert Wise’s 1963 classic that has been scaring the beejeezus out of me since I was eight years old.
I suppose that’s one way of putting it.
The Haunting is a terrifying ghost story that manages to frighten us without blood, guts, CGI or buckets of flying pea soup. No, Wise combined good filmmaking, three-dimensional characters, and fine actors, to strike fear into the hearts of audiences.
The spookiest thing about the film is what we don’t see. There are all kinds of ungodly noises—pounding on doors, hideously indecipherable chants and wailings, but there are no ghouls or freaks in hockey masks.
Wise lets our imaginations fill in the horrifying blanks and that’s far more frightening than any computer generated hobgoblin.
Miss Harris plays Nell, an emotionally disturbed woman who joins a small research group investigating the strange goings-on at Hill House, an extremely creepy old New England mansion.
I Hear You Knocking...
Nell is central to the plot and Miss Harris plays her perfectly. We learn that Nell had taken care of her invalid mother for years and now lives a miserable existence at her sister’s home.
She seizes the chance to escape to Hill House and the chilling thing is that even though this sinister place reeks of evil, she is drawn to the house because in some sick way it offers an escape from her pitiful life.
Claire Bloom plays Theodora, another member of the group, who befriends Nell. Theodora is a lesbian, but the message is delivered with such subtlety that I didn’t pick up on it for years.
Rosalie Crutchley does a great turn as the demented Mrs. Dudley, the caretaker’s wife, who cranks up the crazy early on by telling Nell in a lobotomized tone that “there won't be anyone around if you need help… No one will come…in the night…in the dark.”
Our family loved this movie so much that we actually rented a TV to watch it at our summer vacation home in the Poconos.
The rest of the time up there we went tube-free, but this was one of the few instances where we allowed to look at what my father called “the Idiot Box” while we were away from Brooklyn.
The movie was frightening enough when we watched it home, but viewing it in our country house where there were no streetlights outside, where “dark” was seriously dark, I was ready to dive under the couch.
If I had to make a complaint about the film, I’d say there’s a little too much voiceover narration. We hear too much of Nell’s thoughts in scenes where the visuals were powerful enough.
There was a despicable remake of this film, which I refuse to link to and which I actually paid good money to watch in a theater. It is the opposite of the original in every way and that ain’t good news.
I never had the pleasure of seeing Miss Harris on the stage, something I deeply regret. But her role as a spinster beset by evil spirits is permanently carved into my memory and I can’t thank her enough.